ALDS Astros White Sox Baseball

Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker Jr. smiles before Game 4 of a baseball American League Division Series against the Chicago White Sox Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. — AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

More than an hour after his Houston Astros lost Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday night, Dusty Baker walked out of the clubhouse and into the tunnel at Minute Maid Park. He wore a patterned green shirt that looked offseason ready. He carried his bag and a plastic bag full of food, but he didn’t seem to be carrying the weight of another postseason that ended too soon.

Nineteen years after he lost in his only other World Series appearance as a manager, Baker seemed to think his second was more of an achievement than a disappointment.

“We took it about as far as we could take it,” Baker said, after the Atlanta Braves claimed their first World Series title since 1995. “We kind of ran out of gas. But I’m more determined now than I was before the year started.”

Baker’s relentless and unabashed determination to win a title — and, as he always says, win a second one, too — has always come despite his firsthand understanding of one of the game’s cruelest realities: His future never seems to be certain, his job never completely safe. The same is true now, at least on paper. Baker’s contract to manage the Astros expired at the end of this season.

He reiterated Tuesday night what he has said all season: He wants to be back. He hopes to be back. He plans to be back. But he has felt that way before. After all, Baker came within just outs of leading the Washington Nationals to their first National League Championship Series in 2017, assured all season he would return, only to get a call a week later telling him the Nationals had decided he wasn’t good enough. As he walked out of the Astros’ clubhouse Tuesday, he said he was “confident” this time was different. But he has been burned before.

“I wasn’t confident in Washington because of their history on how they handled Matt Williams and Davey Johnson and Frank Robinson. I was hopeful, but not confident,” Baker said. “I don’t know what I got to do sometimes.”

Some turnover on the Astros’ coaching staff is already assured. Beloved veteran pitching coach Brent Strom announced Tuesday night that he would not be returning as a full-time pitching coach, though he hadn’t ruled out another job in baseball of some form or another. At 73, Strom said he decided a month ago that he would step away. The travel was too much. He wanted time to enjoy life outside baseball, have a summer or something. He called Sandy Koufax, which hardened that stance.

“He said, ‘Be free with your money, and with your time, be very conservative. Be careful with your time,’” Strom said. “That really hit home.”

Strom’s departure is a reminder of just how much Baker has given to this game. At 72, he has no intention of stopping, no calculus in which the benefits of stepping away outweigh the desire to keep going.

“I feel terrible because I’m not really ready to go home. I haven’t been home since I left in February,” Baker said. “So you know I must love these guys and love what I’m doing. I mean, when’s the last time you weren’t home — it’s dang near — I looked on the calendar today, and it’s almost Thanksgiving.”

His son, Darren, is in professional baseball now, too. If Baker returns to manage the Astros, he and Darren will spend spring training at the same Florida complex, Dusty on the Astros’ side, Darren on the Nationals’. One Astros player after another — José Altuve, Michael Brantley, Carlos Correa — said Tuesday they hope he gets that chance.

“He’s a great manager, great person, great human being,” Correa said. “Loved playing for him. I loved every single second.”

By almost any measure, Baker is indeed one of the great managers in baseball history. He is the first manager to lead five different teams to division titles. He is 12th all-time in wins. Everyone ahead of him on the list is in the Hall of Fame, except for Bruce Bochy, who hasn’t yet been eligible.

But Baker is still known as much for what he hasn’t done as for what he has. After his San Francisco Giants saw a World Series lead evaporate in 2002, Baker spent 19 years waiting for his next chance to win a title. He never came closer than he did with these 2021 Astros, though in his mind, this team did all it could.

“Quite frankly, this one doesn’t hurt quite as much as the first one did, because the first one, I thought we had that one, you know what I mean?” Baker said. “When you’ve got to come back and come back. The last one, we had the lead in the series. This one, we didn’t.”

At times after Tuesday’s loss, Baker seemed like his usual, introspective self — as candid about what the loss meant to him as what he knows it will mean to others.

“I think you get over it,” Baker said. “Other people don’t let you get over it. And other people don’t get over it.”

And perhaps it was for those people that Baker ended more than one answer the same way Tuesday, trailing off into a more distant voice, breaking eye contact to look down at his hands. Or perhaps it was for someone else.

“It’s OK,” Baker said, more quietly than before. “It’s OK.”

The Washington Post

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